All direct quotations from Saint Edith Stein come from "Essays on Woman," Volume 2 of The Collected Works of Edith Stein, translated by Freda Mary Oben. As this was a speech, I didn't create the ordinary scholarly apparatus. And let me tell you, I regretted this later when I was translating the quotes into Polish. (Had I written the citations, I could potentially have found the official Polish version of St. Edith Stein's writings and swiftly looked them up.)
By the way, I am putting up a new tip jar because we are in serious need of a new vacuum cleaner in our battle with the common British clothes moth. B.A. would also like you to know that I have been known to proofread and edit the English style of academic essays for $40/hr. I accept work only from people who are recommended by their professors, however, so this is not an ad to the students, but to any professors who would prefer that someone fix up their keen but illegible foreign students' essays before the professors have to read them. Theology a specialty.
St. Edith Stein's Theology of Woman
It is a miracle that Saint Edith’s manuscripts and notebooks survived the war. When, after her arrest, a bomb fell on her monastery in the Netherlands, the nuns and villagers ran around rescuing her papers from the wind and the rain. Her writings on women were eventually gathered into a volume called “Die Frau: Ihre Aufgabe nach Natur und Gnade”, which translated means “Woman: Her task according to nature and Grace.” This book has been translated into several languages including Polish, and I think that everyone with university-level reading comprehension should read it. The essays are challenging, but deeply helpful for men and women to understand woman’s nature and what she is called to do in the modern world.
Saint Edith examined the reality of what it is to be a woman from two sources: Scripture and her experience of living as a woman among women as a teacher of girls and women. Her philosophical training under Husserl taught her to subject everything she was told about women to the light of lived experience. (It is a failure to do this which led Aristotle, most dramatically, to make severe errors about women, which subsequent generations merely parroted, without examining lived realities.)
Saint Edith identified a woman as human, first of all, called to the same overall human project as men: to be the image of God, bring forth children and be masters over the earth. Men and women are in the image of God because they have reason. They bring forth physical or spiritual children. They are masters over the created earth in several ways: they are “to fight and conquer it; to understand it and by knowledge to make it [their] own, to possess and enjoy it, and finally, and to make it in a sense [their] own creation through purposeful activity.” But Saint Edith sees that men and women differ in the ways they use their reason, have children, and exercise their rule over their earth. For example, men have a tendency to concentrate on only one subject or aspect at a time, whereas women have a tendency to multi-task and see “the whole picture”. In this they compliment and correct each other.
Saint Edith also observes that women are much more interested in people and in helping others with their work than men are; men literally prefer to mind their own business. Unless economic necessity directs otherwise, most men gravitate towards subjects and professions involving physical strength, independence or abstract thought, whereas women gravitate towards professions that focus on helping people: medicine, teaching, social work, translation. However, she sees no profession to which women are not suited: she observes that women have unique gifts to bring to what have been male-dominated professions. There is no need for women to become like men in order to enter a profession: what is needful is that a woman enter the profession for which her own unique personal talents most suit her and in such a way that this profession does not interfere with her primary vocation which is, whether or not she literally gives birth, a mother.
Motherhood is key to Saint Edith Stein’s theology of woman, and her great model for motherhood is Mary, Mother of God. Just as Our Lord Jesus Christ is the “New Adam” who frees humanity from the sin of Adam, so the Mother of God is the “New Eve” by whom Our Lord Jesus Christ enters the world. Eve was tempted by the serpent and sinned; Mary did not sin and gave birth to the Son who defeated the serpent.
Because the New Adam and the New Eve are mother and child, Saint Edith infers that woman’s most important role towards humanity is not her role as a wife, but her role as mother. Indeed, even a married woman’s role as a human wife is subordinate to her call to be a mother, which is to say, motherly. Edith talks of a spiritual motherhood, not just a physical motherhood; many women who do not have children, like female religious or other unmarried women, have a vast capacity for maternal love than can and should be used for the whole community. It is, in fact, a feminine gift which can help women become more like the Mother of God.
Jednakże w badaniach Księgi Rodzaju... Just kidding!
But in her studies of Genesis, Edith Stein notes two things in particular: that Adam was made before Eve and that Eve was made as a helper and a companion for Adam. She reflects that by having been created first, Adam seems to have a certain precedence over Eve. This masculine precedence is echoed in the fact that Our Lord Jesus Christ chose to live His humanity as a man. Thus, Saint Edith does not depart from the belief that woman was made for man, to be a helper and a companion for the man. And she sees in women around her an earnest desire to be helpful and to be companions for men. However, she notes that before the Fall, the relationship between man and woman was not the relationship of domination and submission it became after the Fall. Man’s tyranny over women is a result of Original Sin and should have no part of the redemption brought by Our Lord Jesus Christ. She notes that Adam showed what a bad master he was going to be when he immediately blamed Eve for giving him the apple.
Saint Edith has a keen sense that we still live under the effects of Original Sin and whenever she talks about humanity, femininity or masculinity, she always notes that we have a fallen humanity, a fallen femininity and a fallen masculinity. (She notes, too, that certain men have more developed feminine characteristics, and certain women have more developed masculine characteristics). Men have to strive against the fallen aspects of masculinity just as women have to strive against the fallen aspects of femininity. For example, men are more likely to become very narrow in their attitude towards the world: striving only for one thing or one goal, to the neglect of other needful things, including the feelings of other people. Women, however, with our interest in other people are more likely to become involved in other people’s business in a meddlesome way. And Stein also warns that if women become narrow in our approach to the world, we become narrow in a particularly dangerous way, abandoning abstract thought and creative action to focus solely on the possession and enjoyment of a good life. Our “reverent joy in the things of this world degenerates into greed” leading us to hoard things we don’t need, or to lapse “into a mindless, idle life of sensuality. “ We can well imagine what she means — ultimately to live for food, romance, entertainment and shopping.
Our primary model for overcoming the fallenness of our female nature is, for Saint Edith, the Mother of God. Not only is the Mother of God a model of obedience and openness to God, of marriage and of motherhood, but of how we should do our paid work. She writes, “Mary at the wedding of Cana in her quiet, observing look surveys everything and discovers what is lacking. Before anything is noticed, even before embarrassment sets in, she had procured the remedy. She finds ways and means, she gives necessary directives, doing all quietly. She draws no attention to herself. Let her be the prototype of women in professional life. Wherever situated, let her always perform her work quietly and dutifully, without claiming attention and appreciation. And at the same time, she should survey the conditions with vigilant eye. Let her be conscious of where there is a want and where help is needed, intervening and regulating as far as it is possible in her power in a discreet way. Then she will like a good spirit spread blessing everywhere.”
What Saint Edith was proposing was a radical departure from the arguments around the Woman Question. Instead of asserting with the feminists that women were the same as men, and therefore equal, or with the traditionalists that women were different from men, and therefore unequal, she asserted that women were both different from men and equal to men, with just one caveat: that men had some kind of precedence shown by the fact that Adam was created first and by the fact that Our Blessed Saviour chose to live His human life as a man. This precedence, however, does not mean that female life is any less important. Indeed, Stein points out that a woman’s assent — Eve’s to the serpent and then Mary’s to God — “determined the destiny of humanity as a whole.” And while Saint Edith affirmed that men, whose primary vocation seems to leadership, and fatherhood a secondary part of this leadership, are the heads of their families, she notes that a good leader knows when to deputize. She writes that “the husband will find that [the wife] will give him invaluable advice in guiding the lives of their children as well as themselves; indeed, often he would fulfil his duties as a leader best if he would yield to her and permit himself to be led by her.”
Meanwhile, Saint Edith put the good of the man and woman’s family life before any professional consideration. She is deeply concerned for the happiness of women who, through no choice of their own, find that their professional work conflicts with their responsibilities to their families. She notes that such a conflict is a heavier burden on mothers than it is on fathers. She asserts that “Any social condition is an unhealthy one which compels [my emphasis] married women to seek gainful employment and makes it impossible for them to manage their home. And we should accept as normal that the married woman is restricted to domestic life at a time when her household duties exact her total energies.” I think Saint Edith Stein would support a movement to grant Polish mothers more than just 20 weeks of maternity leave.
Saint Edith’s theology of woman is also the source for the notion of the complementarity of men and women: the idea that men and women, working together, combining masculine and feminine characteristics, create a balanced whole, not only in family life, but in professional and national life, as well. Saint Edith’s work is so well known today because of her most famous disciple, who never met her, and was in Kraków when Saint Edith was murdered with her sister in Auschwitz. I speak, of course, of Saint Jan Paweł II.
---from "A Speech about the Theology of Women of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and St. John Paul II to the Dzielne Niewiasty in Kraków, Poland on May 4, 2014 " by Dorothy Cummings McLean.